Ten years ago, I attended my first intranet community event, the appropriately-named Intranetters. Looking back, as plans take shape for a 2020 revival of the meet-up, I can see it as the starting point of a chain of events that is reasonable to call life changing.
I actually felt nervous, a fraud almost, as I stepped out of Temple tube station on my way to the event at British American Tobacco. My boss, the director responsible for the company intranet, had just let me know he wasn’t going to make it and I felt rather exposed.
The welcome, of course, was warm, and I quickly found myself in conversation. Even so, it was hard to shake the view that these people were doing bigger, more important things. Then the talks began, and they felt bigger and more successful too.
Slowly, though, I began picking up details that I could use, realising these experiences weren’t so different from my own. And the principles I’d learned from years of building websites, thinking about user experience, of wrangling SharePoint and running an intranet, meant I felt I had something to contribute.
Over the course of 2010, I’d attend a number of community events and jointly organise four more. At work, I’d ask to move from information-led websites to a new role building and running the intranet.
This career change was largely inspired by the people I’d met, and their friendliness and desire to contribute. Few things delight me more than watching someone realise, as I’d done, that their problems aren’t unique and there is a whole community ready and willing to support them.
Through this community, I have been able to do more. Through these connections, my work on SharePoint was highlighted in a report by StepTwo, and later appeared in Essential Intranets. My first roles as a contractor came via people I’d met and paved the way for ongoing work over the last eight years. Conversations and connections led me to developing the idea behind my Lessons from Learning talk for Intranet Now, and it was a professional highlight to be asked to take it to IntraTeam in Copenhagen last year.
And it’s not just me either. Through this likeminded, supportive community, I’ve seen other capable people find new opportunities and do amazing things.
Nick Shackleton-Jones is an entertaining and occasionally puckish speaker, and kept the Brighton audience for last night’s Tilt Talk on their toes with jokes, challenging questions, short activities and giant marshmallow-throwing.
And that wasn’t just playfulness, but illustrating one of Nick’s key points about how people learn: that we are much more likely to remember things when we are engaged and active. He joked that “something has gone horribly wrong”, that in spite of everything now known about learning, the audience was sitting there waiting to hear from “the sage on the stage.”
Drawing on differences between learning and education, Nick discussed the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve which, he argued, only shows “human memory is very good at throwing out rubbish.” And so, leads onto his particular theory as described in his book How People Learn.
Learning is emotional
In the Affective Context Model, Nick argues that learning is only made of emotional responses, from which the memories are reconstructed. This got me thinking about what might count as emotions, and also how I really got into cooking not from TV chefs and their overproduced programmes, but from the kind of shows that showed live cooking.
An important point here is that if we are engaged and motivated to learn, an educator merely needs to provide the resources. This is the Pull condition or what Nick calls “strong affective context”. In the “weak affective context” or Push condition, we need to provide experiences, narrative and more so that unmotivated learners become motivated.
Describing some of his work at BP, Nick described a very user-centred approach to understanding real needs. Don’t talk to stakeholders “about topics,” Nick says, “talk about what people need to do,” and then talk to those people about how to meet those needs.
In talks like this, we expect to hear about things that are exciting and innovative, but it was the inclusion of more ordinary tools that made me pay attention. These included factsheets and checklists that allow people to explore and understand a subject, and to help them take the right actions.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised as I’m a fan of tools built for explorability. The Design Process I helped build at BDP allowed different professionals to understand their responsibilities during any stage in a building’s design and construction. Also at BDP, redesigning the website, I made it a key principle that there would be no dead-ends in the primary information.
But, it’s not just about learning…
As I got to think about the importance of emotions in learning, it struck me that the same principles held true in internal communications and culture change. This shouldn’t have surprised me, as I’ve previously argued that learning is how organisations change.
It shouldn’t surprise me, or anyone working in learning, change, comms, or intranets, that this is all interconnected. We are all trying to win the limited attention of the same beleaguered employees, and that won’t work in the longer-term if the surprises become predictable.
That leaves listening and understanding as the tools we should all use. We can build tools that effectively support exploration and understanding, ones that can push users into the right learning, without creating too much noise for our colleagues. Choosing when and when not to use emotional hooks may be the most important thing we do.
It feels a little odd to be back at One America Square so soon after the last Intranet Now conference, not that I’m complaining. The previous Summer Edition was an experiment that I very much enjoyed (Intranet Now 2019 Summer Edition), and it is always a pleasure to immerse myself in the event.
Fintan Galvin (Invotra) The elements of a strategy
If what the attendees really needed to wake them up was a head-to-head comparison of the strategies of Ghengis Khan and Dominic Cummings, then it worked.
The theme of the conference was “the impact of a strategic digital workplace”, something Fintan admits he’s obsessed with. He neatly sneaked in a little plug for Invotra’s strategy of embedding customer focus in their culture, and contrasted that with their tactics to achieve that.
Fintan made a number of memorable contributions.
For many, Fintan’s comment that being a Google or Microsoft house is not a strategy that will go down well. I imagine there will be a few more raised eyebrows at “an intranet is not a digital workplace…a digital workplace is made up by a digital ecosystem”.
For me, the comment that made Fintan’s keynote was that “intranets are the most flexible systems in any ecosystem. This makes it harder to draw strategic lines.”
I’m not sure I see that as a bad thing. If we see the intranet as a tool that has the strength and the flexibility to take the load, to try things out, to learn more and subsequently move them elsewhere, then that’s a good thing. Think, perhaps, how easy it is to build a tool in SharePoint with a list or series of lists behind it. This can be seen as a strength, and the lessons learned can be turned into a proper solution. Even if the only lesson learned is that the demand wasn’t sufficient or the admin burden was higher, then the strategy will have paid off.
John Baptiste-Kelly (Wellcome) Measuring the value of a user-centred approach to intranets
The first in-house practitioner on stage, John highlighted a product team approach to researching, building and running an intranet, in contrast to hiring a consultancy or buying an intranet-in-a-box product.
Certainly, Wellcome’s Trustnet looks successful. Many will envy the statistic that 98% of employees will visit it in a 2 week period. Admittedly, Wellcome Trust has a highly-educated workforce, but the statistic that 45% of employees have posted an article in the last year is one to be admired.
Melissa Masterson (The AA) One small step back, one giant leap forwards
It’s a little unfortunate that the thing we’ll remember from Melissa’s engaging talk is that jellybeans go down well as an intranet promotion tool. Melissa, very honestly, admitted to knowing very little about intranets when taking her role, and thinking the AA intranet could be relaunched in 6 weeks.
What the talk should be remembered for is in-depth research, supported by Scarlett Abbott and an impressive launch that reached a large proportion of the remote workforce – 87% of colleagues accessed the service.
Kelly Freeman (Interact) Zhuzz up your content strategy
This was a really practical introduction to improving the quality of your intranet content, and of getting the right content for the right reasons. As Kelly says “What is the point of spending tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds on your intranet if you’re not trying to get it as right as you can?”
Kelly made three key points: define your goal, understand your audience, and audit against user needs. I particularly like the last. Her pup of intranet content will also go down in Intranet Now fame.
Martin Stubbs-Partridge (Scottish Natural Heritage) Alignment: a series of leaps
Martin shared a case study of the ups and downs of intranet at Nature Scotland. Hard work and research weren’t enough to guarantee success, but the arrival of a new CEO and her cycle ride around nature sites across Scotland helped change the way colleagues communicate and collaborate. I’d like to see more with this level of honesty.
Hannah Moss (Wilmott Dixon) Give the people what they want! (Then measure it)
Another positive case study, this time looking at bringing in Office 365 at construction firm Willmott Dixon. It’s clear that good understanding built on good research has contributed to its success. I particularly like Hannah’s slide of a decision tree showing what tool to use for a variety of different activities.
Simon Hudson (Cloud 2) Martin Hutchinson (Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust) Digital evolution in the workplace
A case study from Cloud 2 customer and now a convert to Microsoft Teams. Martin Hutchinson was a strong advocate but seemed keenly aware of some of the risks of getting things wrong. It would have been great to see the solution in action.
Kurt Kragh Sørensen (IntraTeam) The Impact of a digital workplace strategy
Kurt’s benchmarking graphs have become a familiar sight at intranet events, and are full of rich information. My main takeaway this time is that Enterprise Social Networks are most successful when properly embedded in the digital workplace.
Greig Rutherford (Standard Life Aberdeen) Not a long jumper
From the grand scale to a very specific research tool. Greig talked about a digital diary to really understand the tools being used by colleagues across the company.
The team used an app to survey 22 people over the course of a week, and a real-time dashboard enabled the team tweak it while in progress. This feels obvious, but we should try to remember Greig’s finding that when under pressure, people revert to the tools they know, and that tends to mean email.
James Mowatt (WM Reply) The intranet of now
Talking about WM Reply’s client British American Tobacco, James underlined some of the problems facing a company of 42,000 employees across 185 countries. A little more detail would have been appreciated, but it was good to see the benefits of rebalancing effort from development towards UX and engagement.
Annette Corbett Auditing your intranet content
Annette’s comment that “Auditing is the Spanx of your strategy as it puts you in good shape” will be remembered for years of Intranet Now to come.
And the remainder of the talk was full of good advice for auditing content. Looking forward, Annette suggests turning your audit into a working document so that you continue to benefit from your efforts.
Charles Fenoughty, Sequel Group Do, know and feel: A framework for understanding the modern workplace
Do (personal productivity and group productivity), Know (work information and practical comms), and Feel (communication) is a great lens to help plan your digital workplace. I don’t think it is perfect, but it’s a very good start.
As if that wasn’t enough, his Venn diagram will provoke a lot of debate more down to the positioning of IT, HR, and internal comms. The four sets of information, communication, collaboration and transactional process are a very good way consider the roles of a digital workplace.
Mark Owen (Affinity Water) A briefing counter – are they the one?
Another dive into a detail, this time with the challenges around a team briefing communication. Following a significant spell of design research, the team at Affinity Water came to understand the problem that email briefings were not being cascaded to all the people who needed them. Mark showed an impressively modest solution using Microsoft PowerApps to monitor the reach of these communications. This has helped to improve targeting and increased participation.
Jon Ingham Linking the digital workplace and organisation design
Jon is an experienced speaker and consultant, but new to the world of Intranet Now. Nevertheless he was an excellent addition to the conference, and a lot of us were contemplating buying his book The Social Organisation.
It was a healthy reminder that businesses have been trying to reorganise themselves since long before intranets, and that perhaps those of us who see things from a digital-first perspective really ought to be seeking out insights from the likes of Organisation Design.
Tanya Burak, Chris Tubb, Tony Stewart Debate: Governance, it’s all about the G-word
The day concluded with a debate on governance. Tanya from Savilles argued for a light-touch form of governance, albeit with a firm foundation of understanding.
Chris, a consultant and co-founder at Spark Trajectory, took the opposite position, that without strong governance “you are not an intranet manager, but an intranet observer.”
Between these positions, sat Tony from consultancy Scarlett Abbott, arguing for greater nuance.
It was a good discussion with strong questions from the audience, and became more heated than I would have expected. My favourite contribution came from Charles Fenoughty, who suggested that the sides of the debate weren’t so different, but the problem was in fact being viewed from different positions. The word I wrote down while considering this was “provenance”, perhaps it isn’t governance we need, more a better way of measuring the quality and lineage of information.
Intranet Diamond Award
Having been invited to speak at his IntraTeam conference in Copenhagen this year, I could hardly disagree with the choice of Kurt Kragh Sørensen for the award. Kurt has been a major contributor to the community for years, he is a big supporter of new speakers, and never less than great company. He is, after all, the vegan who cheerfully eats salad while his guests tuck into multiple varieties of traditional Danish pork on the first night of IntraTeam.
One of the delights of the Intranet Now format is that it has room for the grand scale and the detail too. That we could see Greig Rutherford’s digital diary alongside stories of major launches, or Annette Corbett digging into the minutiae of content audits on the same bill as Jon Ingham discussing organisational design.
Also, in spite of the stated theme of Strategy, what really developed was the theme of quality research. It is now clear that successful projects are rooted in real understanding of employee needs. Similarly, doing content well is now part of the equation.
I will continue to think about Fintan Galvin’s comment about the intranet being the most flexible part.
All in all, I had another enjoyable day, I felt energised by it, and I’m already looking forward to Intranet Now in 2020.
And it’s not just that I admire them, each of these people has contributed to my knowledge, my experience and, in convoluted ways, to my career.
But, this post isn’t really about any of us, Lisa got me thinking about the people we meet who somehow have ended up working in intranets. It’s an amazingly broad range of people who do have a lot in common. To put it bluntly, there are amazing people doing amazing things in the digital workplace.
Intranet people are connectors
It’s not just connecting externally with our peers. Intranet people break through silos and connect across our organisations. You can see that in our careers too, we’re the HR people working in comms, the journalists working in IT, or the recruits who never stopped moving.
We are digital, but we understand the human impact
The place we work is online, our output is digital, our tools are digital, but we understand the effect of our work goes beyond that.
We know real people use the tools we create, so we strive to understand their needs, and consider how our work affects those in our organisations.
We embrace change and know things aren’t slowing
Not one of us would be where we are if we’d stopped learning. We are the coders who learned to write, the marketers who nurtured a passion for user experience, or technical specialists who discovered they could achieve more through communities.
At the frontline of change in the workplace, we’ve all told our bosses there are better ways of doing things and, for sure, we’re going to do it again and time again.
We demonstrate the power of collaborating
To do our jobs well, we know we need to be talking to people throughout the organisation and beyond. Then we need to get them talking to one another, and sharing, and working across those barriers.
We look beyond the constraints of how things have always been done and strive to find better ways. But we’ve grown up with data at our fingertips, so we see past the noise, and make decisions based on what works.
And we know the work doesn’t stop
We’re lucky to be able to see the instant effect of our work, and we know this. Intranet people may not be the crazy ones, but we know we can change things.